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Women's History Month

Every year March is designated Women's History Month by Presidential proclamation.  It honors women's contribution's in American history.

Women have made significant contributions to aviation history in Virginia as you will see below.

Mary Alexander

In July 1929 Mary C. Alexander went to Roosevelt Field on Long Island in New York to take flying lessons, and later that year she graduated from the Curtiss Wright Flying School in Baltimore. She told a journalist who wrote a story about women who were learning to fly that she wanted to be able to add sales of airplanes to her Lynchburg (Virginia) automobile dealership, but that business had closed by 1929. Clearly what she really wanted to do was fly. Alexander became a charter member of the first association of women aviators, called the Ninety-Nines, and she knew most of the first generation of women pilots. Amelia Earhart referred to Alexander in 1932 as the "flying grandmother," although Alexander may not yet have become a grandmother for the first time.

Alexander lived in Lynchburg until about 1935 and listed herself in the city directory as an "aviatrix." She was an advocate of women in aviation when flying was still a glamorous and dangerous pursuit. In an article for the magazine Southern Aviation, Alexander stated in 1932 that she saw no conflicts among her roles as a woman, mother, business executive, and aviator. One of only a very few licensed women pilots in Virginia early in the 1930s, she flew at air shows in Virginia and elsewhere during the decade but avoided the stunt flying and high-risk flamboyance of barnstorming. About 1932 she acquired a transport pilot's license and obtained permission to use a Virginia National Guard airfield in Virginia Beach to begin a scheduled air service between Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, but in August 1934 the National Guard canceled her permit to use the airfield after one of her pilots violated the field's regulations.

Alexander continued to fly until the end of the decade, after which she took a desk job with Pan American Airways. Following her second marriage, to Emil Charles Held, of Washington, D.C., she lived in Washington or its Maryland suburbs and pursued a new interest in art. Mary C. Alexander Held died in Georgetown Hospital in Washington on 16 April 1955. Emil Held's service in World War I having entitled her to the privilege, she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Velta Haney Benn

Velta Haney Benn, of Alexandria, was active in Virginia aviation for nearly 40 years. She accumulated more than 40,000 hours of flying time and earned a wide range of advanced pilot ratings. A former member of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or Wasps, she was an FAA flight examiner and was the first woman to qualify to make takeoffs and landings in a jet aboard an aircraft carrier.  She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983.

Ann Baumgartner Carl

Ann Baumgartner Carl, of Kilmarnock, took her first flight in a J-3 Piper Cub in 1940. Her addiction to flying was immediate and she declared, “This is what I was made for.” During WWII she became a Women Airforce Service Pilot and was the only WASP to serve as a military test pilot. She flew in-flight refueling test missions, tested new gun sites, and flew the RP-47E, the first fighter with a pressurized cockpit. In October 1944, she became the world’s first woman to fly a turbo jet powered aircraft, the Bell YP-59A, a distinction that would remain unchallenged for 10 years. Ann was honored to become a personal friend of Orville Wright and served as his escort to numerous aviation events for many years. She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000.

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson

Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918.  She graduated with highest honors from the math curriculum at West Virginia State College in 1937 when she was 18.  Upon graduation she took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.

In 1953 she began temporary work in the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Her position soon became permanent and she spent four years analyzing data from flight tests and worked on the investigation of a plane crash cause by wake turbulence.

In 1957 she provided some of the math for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology. She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepherd’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7. In addition, she coauthored Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position which was the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division (of NASA) had received credit as an author of a research report.

In 1962 she was asked to check the computer generated orbital equations for John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission.  She also worked on the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions as well as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS) (later renamed Landsat) and authored or coauthored 26 research reports. 

She retired from NASA in 1986. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, and in 2017 she was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.

Lucille Chaffin Kent

Lucille Chaffin Kent, of Lynchburg, was born in 1908 and is remembered as one of the first female flight instructors in Virginia who trained more than 2,000 future military pilots to serve in World War II. In addition, she authored a comprehensive aeronautics manual and a two-part series of books called That Our Heirs May Know.

According to the historic marker dedicated in her honor in Lynchburg, Kent began teaching meteorology, navigation, and civil air regulations at E.C. Glass High School in 1939. When the United States entered the Second World War, she was a ground school director in the Civilian Pilot Training Program in Lynchburg, which then became the War Training Service. During the war, she trained military pilots at the University of Lynchburg (then Lynchburg College), in commandeered facilities at the Miller Home for Girls, and at Preston Glenn Airport.

According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Kent also qualified as an instructor on the Link Trainer flight simulator, teaching pilots how to use navigational instruments. Prior to her career as a flight instructor, she attended both R-MWC and Ferrum College.

After the war ended, she worked as a Lynchburg area music teacher for many years before passing away in 1997.

Evelyn Marshall

Evelyn Marshall began her career of service on her 20th birthday, when she was sworn into the U.S. Naval Reserves as a Navy Wave in World War II.

While assigned to the Navy Department in Washington, DC, Evelyn met Frank Marshall, and they were married in 1945. They were truly an inseparable team. In 1951, Frank learned to fly, launching the Marshalls into a lifelong commitment to aviation.

In 1959, they formed Airport Management, Inc., and assumed management of the Manassas Airport. Five years later, they were vital to efforts to ‘save’ the previous Manassas Airport, which ultimately led to the establishment/relocation of the airport to its current location. The Marshalls then turned their attention to the development of an airport in nearby Fauquier County.

Under the auspices of Marshall Aviation, Inc., they obtained a lease on 167 acres of land, cleared the land and installed a 3,000 foot sod airstrip, which ultimately became the Warrenton-Fauquier Airport. They then turned their energies to development and growth of the Winchester Airport, as well as the establishment and operation of airports in West Virginia and Maryland. In 1966, they returned to Manassas, taking the airport out of receivership, opening a Piper aircraft dealership, and putting the airport on a sound financial footing.

After Frank’s death, Evelyn has continued her interest and support of general aviation in Virginia, and has been both supporter and activist. She has served on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Aviation Trades Association. She also has been a long-standing member of the Flying Circus Airshows in Bealeton, Virginia, and a lifetime member of the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society.

All-in-all, Evelyn has served Virginia aviation for more than 58 years. Frank Marshall was inducted into the Virginia Hall of Fame in 2003. His solo induction did not adequately recognize the extraordinary contributions that Frank and Evelyn made together to aviation in the Commonwealth and she was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2018.

Jeanne H. Pedigo

Jeanne H. Pedigo, of Roanoke,  went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA forerunner) in 1950. Soon thereafter she earned an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering and was recruited by North American Aviation as a Thermodynamics Engineer on the F-86 Sabre jet and F-100 Super Sabre jet aircraft.

In 1970, Governor Linwood Holton appointed her to the Virginia Airport Authority where she continued to serve for Governors Mills Godwin and John Dalton. In 1981, Governor Dalton appointed Pedigo as the first, and to date, only woman Chairman of the Virginia Aviation Board.

In 1986, she left the board to work for Campbell & Paris Engineers as the Director of Business Planning. In 1998, she was recruited by Governor Gilmore to serve another four years on the Virginia Aviation Board.

Throughout her 20-year tenure she was a strong advocate for both air carrier and general aviation facilities. She continued to actively participate in many national aviation-oriented organizations such as the American Association of Airport Executives, Airports Council International and the Southeastern Airport Managers Association capping an aviation career of over 60 years.  She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2003.

Madeline G. Swegle

Madeline G. Swegle is from Burke, Virginia and is the Navy’s first Black female tactical air pilot.  A 2017 Naval Academy graduate, she initially reported to the Naval Aviation Schools Command at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida where she competed initial flight screening and aviation preflight indoctrination.  She did primary flight training with Training Squadron VT-27 at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. Upon selecting TACAIR (tactical air) she progressed to intermediate and advanced training with Training Squadron VT-21 at Naval Air Station Kingsville.

She completed carrier qualifications and advanced to graduate-level flight training.  She’ll be an EA-18G Growler pilot with training in electronic warfare tactics, techniques and procedures in preparation for her assignment to the fleet.

Louise M. Thaden

Louise M. Thaden, of Roanoke, was one of the most famous women in aviation in the 1920s and 30s. She set numerous world records including the 1928 altitude record (20,260 feet), a solo-endurance flight record in 1920 of over 22 hours, and the light plane speed record of 1934.

In 1932 Thaden and Frances Marsada used primitive air-to-air refueling technologies to set a record of 166 hours aloft. She won a number of air races including the First Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in 1936.

While a resident of Virginia, Thaden was instrumental in developing the Civil Air Patrol and served as director of the Cadets of the Virginia Wing.

She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989.

Billie S. Toombs

Billie S. Toombs, of Fredericksburg, began her long association with Sidney Shannon and his airport in May 1968, when she was hired to work in the parts department and fill in on the front counter on the weekends. By 1970 she was involved in various aspects of the operation including the very popular Father’s Day Fly-ins which continued for two years past Mr. Shannon’s death in July 1981.

After his death, Billie was hired by the trust department of the bank handling the estate to manage the airport, which she did until it was sold to a real estate development firm in 1986. They hired her to continue to manage the airport until 1994, when the bank re-acquired the airport.

After receiving her private pilot license on August 14, 1990, she got permission from the owners to have an annual fly-in. The first “Just Plane Fun” Fly-in was held in the summer of 1990, and with the help of customers and Robert Stanley, her eventual partner, “Just Plane Fun” continued through 1997.

In 1994 Billie and her partner Robert Stanley formed Aire Shannon, Inc., and by 1997 were the owners of one of the busiest general aviation airports in the Commonwealth with 129 hangars and 160 based aircraft.  She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004.

Maude "Maxine" Walker

Maude “Maxine” Walker, of Deltaville, soloed a Piper J-3 in November 1940 and received her private license in February 1941.

Maxine taught instruments to Piedmont Aviation pilots in Link Trainers in Norfolk, Virginia and was actively involved in the Civil Air Patrol Program where she often flew the PT-17 Stearman. As a flight instructor she has provided many pilots both primary and advanced flying training. In 1957, she and fellow pilot Louise Smith competed in the Women’s International Air Race from Texas to Cuba.

In 1959, Maxine became the first female air traffic controller at the Richmond tower. She retired from the FAA in 1981. She operated temporary control towers at both the Shannon and Hummel Field Fly-ins for many years.

She served on the Airport Committee for Hummel Airport in Middlesex County and the Board of Directors of the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society. Maxine was active in the women’s pilot organization “Ninety-Nines” for over 55 years. She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002.

Jean Waltrip

Jean Waltrip, of Williamsburg, was co-owner/manager of the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport. In 1967 Jean, and her husband Larry, began construction and the process to obtain State and Federal permits for a private owned/public use airport. The Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport was officially opened September 20, 1970 after opponents appealed it all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which ruled it a safe and viable airport. They continually improved their airport and kept it in operation as the aviation doorstep to Colonial Williamsburg and the surrounding area.

Jean also served as President of the Virginia Aeronautical Operations Council. The VAOC's goal is to increase the use, improve facilities and services at all public use airports in the state of Virginia.

Jean and Larry Waltrip were inducted in to the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001.

Gladys West

Gladys West was born in 1930 in Dinwiddie County. She majored in mathematics at Virginia State University. In 1956 she was hired as a mathematician at the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Virginia (now the Naval Surface Warfare Center) where she analyzed satellite data.  At this time she was one of only four African Americans employees working there.

She started as a human computer, doing the math manually but then transitioned to programming computers.  In the 1960s she worked on an astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune.  Then she became project manager of the Seasat radar altimetry project.  She used information from Seasat and other satellites to refine an increasingly detailed and accurate mathematical model of the actual shape of the Earth.  This modeling would prove essential to modern GPS, since it relies on this model to determine the position of a receiver.

Dr. Gladys West retired in 1998 after 42 years at Dahlgren and then pursued a remote PhD program in Public Administration at Virginia Tech which she completed in 2018.

Elise Wheelock

Elise Wheelock took her first flight six (6) years ago at age 15 at a Women Can Fly event organized by the Ninety-Nines, Winchester Regional Airport, and Virginia Department of Aviation.

She's now 22 years old, graduated from the University of North Dakota and has earned a private pilot certificate (airplanes and gliders), commercial certificate, multi-engine and instrument ratings, as well as flight instructor and instrument instructor certificates, and a type rating in a Citation jet.  She also won the National Aerobatic Championships in the primary category in 2017.

Professionally, she is the Product Marketing Coordinator for Piper Aircraft.  She demonstrates Piper Aircraft and products and works on product development, marketing, and aircraft delivery coordination.  She continues to learn and advance and we can't wait to see how far she goes...

Martha Anne Woodrum Zillhardt

Martha Anne Woodrum Zillhardt, of Fincastle, had a career marked by a number of firsts in Virginia aviation. After soloing in 1940, Mrs. Zillhardt earned her private pilot, instructors and commercial ratings and is believed to be the first woman in Virginia to earn an instrument rating.

She organized a fixed base operation at Woodrum Field just after WWII and built it into a major multi-service company. She was elected president of the Virginia Aviation Trades Association in 1960 and served on the Roanoke Airport Advisory Committee.

She was inducted into the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1985.